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An Analysis: the New York Times vs. Sullivan

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AN ANALYSIS: THE NEW YORK TIMES VS. SULLIVAN

Class, Section, Professor’s name,
The New York Times vs. Sullivan
The civil rights era was a time in American history when issues concerning race relations ranged from segregation to abuse. During this time, The New York Times vs. Sullivan case changed the face of the news and the country’s understanding of the first amendment forever and in turn represents what most people today recognize as freedom of speech (Harrison, Harrison, Gilbert, &Gilbert, 1991-2006).
In the spring of 1960, racial tension high and Americans of all races fighting for change. The New York Times published a full-page advertisement describing the abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the people who carry the expectation to protect and serve. The civil right activism that many Americans know from history books and television was just beginning. The rise of students working together with King and other leaders to create the infamous sit-ins and in turn violent reaction of the police that is all too familiar in history books and documentaries.
Martin Luther King participated in the first sit in at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Durham and upon returning to Atlanta was informed that he had a warrant in Alabama because of false information on tax records. Two groups, the Struggle for Freedom and the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King paid $4,800 dollars for the advertisement, which asked for donations to not only fulfill the mission of the students of Struggle for Freedom but also help with the defense cost of Dr. King in a case where he was, facing perjury charges (Tanenhaus, 2008). On May 28 1961, the jury found Dr. King not guilty of perjury on tax forms after three days in court. However, for the New York Times and the American legal system the story is just beginning.
The state of Alabama requires in cases such as this for the claimant to request a retraction before further action takes place. Sullivan did so and the New York Times denied Sullivan’s request because the New York Times did not believe that any wrongdoing took place considering they did not believe that the advertisement directly mentioned, referred, or alluded to Sullivan. Additionally the New York Times requested Sullivan show them how the advertisement was about him and Sullivan denied the Times request and instead Sullivan filed a lawsuit. Initially the case, which included four civil rights activists Ralph Abernathy, S.S. Seay, Sr., Fred Shuttleworth, and Joseph Lowery as co-defendants, ended with a victory for Sullivan (New York Times v. Sullivan | The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, n.d.). However, at the request of Governor John Patterson the New York Times did print a retraction.
Several errors within the advertisement exist including but not limited to claims of padlocking students in the campus-dining hall of Alabama State University. Sullivan’s complaint was in the third paragraph of the advertisement the word police was used and although the defendants did not mention his name Alabama law stated that one could be found guilty of libel by making comments directed at an agency one runs. For example, the New York Times advertisement mentioned the police, which Sullivan was in charge, which is the basis for his case (Harrison, Harrison, Gilbert, &Gilbert, 1991-2006). Whereas Sullivan was within the law to seek general damages there was no financial loss, therefore punitive damages were not an option because Sullivan was unable to establish malice (Tanenhaus, 2008).
The circuit court found the New York Times guilty of libel on November 3, 1969. Six residents testified they believed that certain statements within the advertisement were in reference to Sullivan and this belief was a major component of how the court was able to reach this decision. The court awarded Sullivan the full $500,000 for damages. On August 30, 1962, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the same decision initially made by the circuit court. The Alabama Supreme Court definition of libel was wide-ranging by characterizes libel as, “injure a person's reputation, profession, trade, or business; accuse a person of a punishable offense; or bring public contempt upon a person” (New York Times v. Sullivan | The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, n.d.).
On January 6, 1964, the federal courts chose to overturn the decision. After hearing appeals from both sides, the Supreme Court decided by unanimous decision that the specifics of Alabama law violates the First amendment Right to freedom of press. In fact, not only did the Alabama state law violate the first amendment but also Alabama newspapers previously published articles openly discussed the use of the vague libel laws as a method of aid to those opposing the civil rights movement. Not only did this case represent change for those involved in the civil rights movement but also for new vehicles across the country.
A key component is changing the level of power individual court systems had and creating some type of uniformity that was a clear representation of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. Something that is particularly important is the idea, which essentially states freedom of speech and press is an entity unto itself when dealing with paid commercial advertisements. Justice William J Brennan said the ruling by the Alabama state courts were constitutionally defective concerning the allegations of Sullivan (Tanenhaus, 2008). Said statements are in reference to the Montgomery police department and not Sullivan. The problem was the state courts believed that the people knew the police were under the influence of Sullivan (New York Times v. Sullivan | The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, n.d.).
The public needs to know what is going on in our communities, states, and our country. The fear of reporting the truth is not something a journalist should fear. The journalist’s job is to bring the news to the masses and this should take place without fear or repercussion. However during the early 1960s and the preceding years this was exactly the problems a journalist possibly faced.
The right to report the news as it happens is a necessity. People need to know what is going on without having to dissect the news based on the source. Decisions about everything from family to politics may stem from the information one receives from news sources and therefore require laws such as freedom of speech and freedom of press to make said news effective.
Justice William J Brennan spoke about how the news would not always conform to the ideas and beliefs of government. In fact, said ideas and beliefs may be in direct conflict with the news the information the news reports however, the foundation of news is not about urging people to agree with a specific ideology but to present the facts and let people make decisions based on said facts. This does not mean that people will agree or disagree for the most part they may even possible be indifferent however the right to hear the truth is fundamentally the foundation of the first amendment, freedom of speech, and freedom of press(New York Times v. Sullivan | The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, n.d.).
In conclusion, the general premise is the laws are in place to protect the innocent. Even with the publicity of this case, a number of issues still exist in which discrepancies and confusion can occur (Erwin, 2000). However, the blatant use of the law to discredit the words of journalist during the civil rights movement was a travesty and the necessity exists for changes to occur. The New York Times vs. Sullivan is an excellent example of the importance of the constitutional rights of the American public (Awakening the Press Clause, 2011). Laws will constantly change to aide the people in justice and with the rise of the internet and the addition of additional news sources outside of television, radio, and print technology facilitates change. However whether on a blog or the local evening edition a journalist should have the right to report the news as honestly as he or she sees it because to do differently serves as in justice to the listener, watcher, or as in the case of the New York Times vs. Sullivan, the reader.

References
Awakening the Press Clause. (2011). UCLA Law Review, 58(4), 1025-1070. Erwin, J. (2000). Can Deterrence Play a Positive Role in Defamation Law?. Review Of Litigation, 19(3), 675.
Harrison, M., Harrison, M., Gilbert, S., & Gilbert, S. (1991-2006). Landmark decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Excellent Books.
New York Times v. Sullivan | The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. (n.d.). The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law | A Multimedia Archive of the Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved March 20, 2012, from http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1963/1963_39
Tanenhaus, D. S. (2008). Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.

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